By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
A messy fight between the ACLU’s national office and Florida affiliate has spilled over into Sarasota circuit court, where ousted state board members are trying to regain their clout.
The lawsuit they filed on Aug. 11 asks a judge to declare that the ACLU flagship overreached when national leadership consigned the Florida branch to “involuntary administrative supervision” and replaced the state board last year.
The New York-based ACLU said it had to act after an internal review found an “accelerating crisis” in the Florida affiliate caused by the “chronically dysfunctional” state board.
The lawsuit and related fallout are already scrambling the Florida ACLU office. Late Thursday the website announced an abrupt and significant change: Executive director Tiffani Lennon has resigned and the national leadership has brought back longtime executive director Howard Simon to serve in an acting capacity.
Reached Friday, Lennon told Florida Bulldog she’s returning to Colorado, where she was executive director of the Colorado Center on Law and Policy before moving to Florida last September. “I came here for the civil liberties fight,” Lennon said; apparently what she found was something else entirely.
But there’s more going on here than a power struggle playing out in a war of big words. The seven deposed board members are fighting for their own freedom of speech.
In a sense they represent the army of volunteers who’ve provided support and guidance ever since pacifist and educator Roger Baldwin helped found the nonprofit American Civil Liberties Union in 1920. Today the ACLU claims more than 1.5 million members.
If the former board members lose their case in Sarasota, local volunteers will no longer be able to argue, in Florida and perhaps elsewhere, that they have the right to go their own way even when it deviates from the path chosen by national leadership.
Carlene Sawyer was active in the Miami ACLU chapter for two decades – until last year, when the national office dissolved Florida chapters — and she resigned. Sawyer is concerned that without local oversight, close-to-home attacks on civil liberties may not get urgently needed attention.
“We have almost no First Amendment rights in this state and it’s really appalling,” she said. “It’s changing us as a state and we need to be working on this. Those are our American values.”
ACLU CLAIMS ‘HOSTILE’ WORKPLACE
Tensions between the Florida board and staff members spiked following the 2018 retirement of Howard Simon after 21 years as state executive director.
Michael Barfield, the Florida board president who led the search for a new executive director, disagreed with staffers about who should get the job as well as program content and spending plans. Board members tried to heal tensions – they even planned a retreat – but nothing worked, he said.
Last August, staffers filed a formal complaint against the state board. The national office mounted an investigation that ended by blaming the board for what it called “the creation of a hostile work environment.”
Investigators found “dysfunctions consumed the Board at the expense of programmatic work and negatively impacted the culture and dynamic between the Board and staff for years,” ACLU spokesperson Gaby Guadalupe wrote in a statement to Florida Bulldog. She would not take questions.
Minority women “were mistreated by disrespectful, unprofessional, aggressive and sometimes verbally abusive behavior directed at them,” the statement says.
“The ACLU of Florida and its national office remain committed to upholding the organization’s core values and commitments to the nonpartisan defense of civil liberties and free speech,” Guadalupe wrote.
The group “categorically disputes” the former directors’ claims, she wrote. She called their allegations “an effort to mislead the public about the underlying facts within the complaint,” implying that they fabricated statements in a court document.
GHOSTING THE FIRST AMENDMENT
The turmoil in Florida reflects a national debate between two ACLU factions.
One is traditionalists who stand by the century-long mission to defend free speech regardless of the speaker’s politics. The other is progressives who refuse to defend hate speech, considering it a form of violence, and want to pursue socio-economic goals that extend beyond the group’s original civil liberties mandate.
The progressives, who have prevailed in recent years, fine-tuned their agenda after former president Donald Trump took office in January 2017.
They joined the resistance movement that began with the massive international Women’s March on Jan. 21, the day after Trump’s inauguration. The national ACLU office launched a program called “People Power” to promote causes such as student debt relief and climate change mitigation.
First Amendment protection became less of a priority, especially after August 2017, when the ACLU of Virginia defended a far-right march in Charlottesville, VA that resulted in the death of counter-protester Heather Heyer.
The words “First Amendment” and “free speech” appear nowhere in ACLU annual reports from 2017 to 2019, The New York Times reported. The article quoted retired ACLU lawyer David Goldberger, who famously defended the right of neo-Nazis to march through Skokie, IL in 1977, lamenting that “liberals are leaving the First Amendment behind.”
In Florida, the diverse and liberal staff supported “People Power” so wholeheartedly, they clashed with the state board, according to Barfield.
Board members, mostly longtime volunteers, saw the program as an exercise in left-wing politics. To them, “People Power’’ was a blatant violation of the ACLU’s prime directive: Stay nonpartisan.
“Partisanship really was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Barfield, a plaintiff in the Sarasota lawsuit.
“Without non-partisanship we lose all credibility,” he said. “We should never evaluate a case or an issue from the viewpoint of which political side benefits from the exercise of free speech. We were unwilling to compromise on that.”
‘PROGRESSIVES’ VS ‘CIVIL LIBERTIES’
“The ACLU should not be viewed as a progressive organization. We are a civil liberties organization,” said Jeanne Baker, also an ex-board member plaintiff.
“We must not be seen as just another progressive group,” she said. Trump and other MAGA extremists lump these groups together, mislabel them “socialists” and repudiate them as political enemies, she claimed.
“We are different and the Florida board wants us to remain as independent of those partisan forces as we’ve always been in the past,” Baker said.
“The national organization is going down the wrong path and our staff was following them down the wrong path,” she said. “We’d like to bring it back to the right path.” Baker and the other plaintiffs want reinstatement to the board.
Sawyer, the former Miami board member, said she doesn’t know what happened at the state level. Still, she observed that national leadership “just decided they did not want local participation. You’re out.”
“They didn’t want input primarily because they were broadening the platform beyond traditional ACLU constitutional goals and objectives and there was pushback on that,” Sawyer said. National ACLU “basically wanted to make sure there was no interference in the conformity to what national wanted the affiliate to do.”
‘TRUMP BUMP’ MONEY POURS IN
For a “chronically dysfunctional” operation, as the national office calls the ACLU of Florida, it’s been remarkably active since Gov. Ron DeSantis took office. The affiliate has a hand in opposing virtually every major policy change generated by the governor’s expansive war on civil rights and what he calls “woke” culture.
It has either led the charge or taken part in challenging Florida laws that curb civil liberties for women, LGBTQ persons and families, immigrants and protesters. ACLU staff and volunteer lawyers targeted the “Stop WOKE Act,” strict abortion bans and racially gerrymandered maps. They work to secure voting rights for former convicts and all Florida residents.
Both the state and national ACLU offices benefited from a “Trump bump” in membership and donations, Barfield said. As soon as the ACLU allied itself with resistance to the Trump administration, tens of millions came pouring in, according to The New York Times.
Salaries rose accordingly. National ACLU executive director Anthony Romero makes $650,000 and some senior managers are paid $400,000, The Times reported in 2021.
The Florida affiliate’s budget grew from $2 million in 2018 to just under $10 million in 2022, Barfield said. Staffing up became affordable.
But donor enthusiasm for an anti-Trump and politically active ACLU may be waning, he said. One indicator: Last month the Florida affiliate announced staff cuts of 10 percent.